SPARTA, Ky. – Jimmie Johnson laid down a track record qualifying lap during Friday's session at Kentucky Speedway to pick up his first career pole position and the first No. 1 starting spot for Hendrick Motorsports at the 1.5-mile racetrack.
"There's a huge jump below the racetrack on the apron past the start-finish line," Johnson said after his lap. "It was a very comfortable lap, good lap. Qualifying has not been our strong suit over the last couple of years.
"But this weekend, we have a very cool race car. I'm proud of the relationship with Lowe's and all they do. Today went really well, and I think we've got a good car in race trim as well."
Johnson toured the 1.5-mile speedway in his No. 48 Lowe's Dover White Chevrolet in 29.70 seconds at roughly 181.818 mph to record his first pole at the newly added Kentucky. In the inaugural event, the pole sitter (Kyle Busch) won the 267-lap event.
Johnson was among the group that benefited from cooler track conditions after a brief, but severe wind swept through the area on Friday. The cooler track meant faster laps, and Johnson's teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon joined him inside the top 10. Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 5 Quaker State Chevrolet, earned the 19th starting spot.
Hendrick Motorsports nabbed two top-10 finishes in the inaugural Cup event at Kentucky last year when Johnson finished third and Gordon scored 10th. The 1.5-mile track joins Homestead-Miami Speedway as the only two venues on the Cup circuit where Hendrick Motorsports has yet to reach Victory Lane. When it comes to 1.5-mile racetracks, the organization has totaled 31 wins, 131 top-five finishes, 213 top-10s and 30 pole positions at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Homestead, Kansas Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.
Saturday’s race at Kentucky Speedway will be broadcast on television (6:30 p.m. ET on TNT) and radio (6:30 p.m. on PRN). Check local listings.
Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 5 Quaker State Chevrolet
At Kentucky: In the 2011 inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, Kahne started fourth and led one lap on his way to a 13th-place finish. During the 267-lap event, Kahne held an average running position of 11.940, which ranked 10th among competitors in the race. The driver of the No. 5 Quaker State Chevrolet scored a race-high 132 green-flag passes last year during the 400-mile event at Kentucky, according to NASCAR loop data. Kahne also posted an average pace of 173.451 mph, which ranked him sixth for speed early in a run.
Most recently: Kahne opened last weekend’s Cup event in Sonoma, Calif., from 15th before quietly climbing into the top 10 to run with his teammates Gordon and Johnson for much of the 110-lap event. A late race caution led to a green-white-checkered finish for which Kahne lined up 11th in the No. 5 Chevrolet, but slipped to 14th as competition resumed. He now ranks 17th in the driver standings.
Kahne says: “The No. 5 team has been at its best on the intermediate ovals. We had a streak of really strong races, and then caught some bad luck the last few weeks. I think we have a good chance to turn things around in Kentucky.”
Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet
At Kentucky: Gordon placed 10th during the inaugural event at Kentucky Speedway last year, contributing to his 66 top-10 finishes at tracks 1.5 miles in length. The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet ranks seventh among active drivers for green flag passes (109) at Kentucky and ran 82 of the event’s 267 laps in the top-15.
Most recently: Gordon lined up in the outside pole position for last Sunday’s 110-lap event at Sonoma, Calf. The No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet charged to the lead on Lap 12 and paced the field for 13 laps to record 23,000 career laps led, the most among active drivers and seventh all-time. A fuel issue mid-race set Gordon back, but he rebounded to finish sixth and improve to 18th in the driver standings.
Gordon says: "The track is very challenging. It's the same thing that makes it difficult to pass any race weekend - usually because it's a one-groove racetrack. There are pretty severe bumps getting into Turn 3, so it's hard to run side-by-side because you get really loose underneath somebody. And the pace is pretty fast - you carry good speed through the corners here. It's just hard to get an edge on the competition."
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Dover White Chevrolet
At Kentucky: Johnson raced to a third place finish during the first Cup event at Kentucky Speedway last season. The driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Dover White Chevrolet earned the second-best driver’s rating (119.8) after one race at the 1.5-mile track. He also ranks second in the categories for green flag speed (173.429 mph) and fastest on restarts (164.252 mph) among active drivers at Kentucky.
Most recently: Johnson lined up third, behind teammate Gordon, for the Cup event at Sonoma, Calif., on Sunday. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet had a solid run throughout the 110-lap event and had an average running position of 3.152. Johnson ultimately finished fifth for his ninth top-five finish of the season. He now ranks fourth in the driver standings.
Johnson says: “It’s the roughest and fastest (intermediate) track we go to. Well, Atlanta is fast, but there are big swells, and I still don’t feel like we’re driving as hard at Atlanta as we are at Kentucky. At Kentucky, you’re driving it like a freshly repaved track. You have high frequency bumps and banking doing weird things. It’s a fun track for those reasons and it has a lot of character to it.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet
At Kentucky: On Saturday, Earnhardt will make his second career NASCAR start at Kentucky Speedway. During last year’s inaugural Cup race at the 1.5-mile tri-oval, Earnhardt sustained a blown left-front tire late in the race that resulted in a 30th-place finish. According to NASCAR loop data statistics, the driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet ranks seventh among active drivers for green flag passes (109) during last year’s race at Kentucky.
Most recently: Earnhardt battled a handling issue for the majority of the 110-lap event at Sonoma, Calif., before ultimately finishing 23rd last weekend. The driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/Nation Guard Chevrolet lined up 19th and ran as high as 12th at the 11-turn road course. Earnhardt’s 23rd-place finish happened after the No. 88 Chevrolet sustained damage during a collision on the last lap. He now ranks third in the driver standings.
Earnhardt says: “Kentucky is kind of wide, but it’s difficult to pass. The second groove has some good grip, so it will be real hard to get underneath guys and get around them. It’s got a lot of bumps, too. I don’t mind the bumps that bad; they definitely add a new dimension in the corners.”